Looking for profiles of people who dared to attempt big life changes.
June 8, 2016 3:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious to read up on folks who decided give up one life for another, entirely different life. Could be individuals or entire families. Could be a different career, a different place in the world, a different identity. Extra points for a bunch of profiles of this sort of thing. Also, they don't have to be happy endings, necessarily. Stories of chasing the dream and failing are fine, too. I've taken a look for this sort of thing, and I'm a little surprised I haven't turned anything up.
posted by harold to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
While I thought this book wasn't much on the sociology side of things, U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life? is a book full of exactly those profiles.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:18 PM on June 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Secret Historian is an excellent book by Justin Spring that details the life of Sam Steward. His life trajectory was that of a professor-writer-poet, but his life ended up in the then-underground world of gay sex, tattooing, pornographic writing, and sexual exploration and documentation. This isn't so much a shift that was premeditated by an a-ha moment, and more of one motivated by the twin specters of professional frustration and the profoundly fucked up social mores of the early 20th century. But nevertheless, it's quite a read (and not necessarily filled with happy endings).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:05 PM on June 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

My story is maybe a kind of non-celebrity microcosm of what you're looking for. I only mention it because a fair amount of it was catalogued in my AskMe history and some of the lengthier comments I've made over the years.

It started with my burgeoning career in Management Consulting with one of the Big 4 global firms. I was a rising manager, fairly smoothly making my way up the ranks as I lead big projects with some of the top companies in the world. I was flying to a different city each week, Monday 6am to Thursday 6pm, renting cars and staying in hotels to get the work on the ground done with the client. Managing teams of consultants and analysts under me on the project, and a team of devs in India doing the software builds. A corporate Amex that basically paid for everything, and I got to keep the points - when I eventually left they would pay for my brand new DSLR and lens setup. You got to keep the hotel and rental car points, and it's been nearly a decade since I left the big firm and I still have Marriott points left to burn.

I was out of the New York office, although I maybe went to it a total of 10 times in 3 years. You were always on the road or working from home on Fridays - and hot damn if you weren't on the phone all day and then some. This was no 4-day work week just because that's how long you were at the client. I worked 60 hour weeks probably on average, more than that in the busy times. 3am calls with India, the works.

But it came with it's perks - the pay was good, the training and development options were seemingly endless, you got a really good amount of vacation for the level you were at in your career, and there was a constant party atmosphere to it, if that's your thing. I'm talking MD's throwing down their credit cards for bottle service at the nicest clubs in the best cities in the world. Lavish dinners at the hardest restaurants to get into. Honestly I enjoyed it at the time but never really slowed down to think about how good I really had it. If I had, I might not ever have left.

And then a friend in New York gave me a copy of Dave Egger's "What is the What."

I was reading it on a flight from Chicago to Orlando. I had left the client early that week to attend a conference for all the managers and above in the Retail Operations group that I worked in. Thanks to airline status benefits, I had been bumped up to first class, which happened maybe every other month. You used your upgrades selectively, I remember watching the weather back in NY with my other buddies on the project who also flew home there, and if you saw crappy weather you would use the upgrade then, because that's when you were most likely to get grounded pre-takeoff. Better to be grounded while sipping gratis whiskey and eating warm peanuts.

In any case, that's where I was when I started reading WITW, and maybe 3 quarters of the way to Orlando, something just kind of dawned on my thick headedness - that I was basically reading a semi-fictionalized account of a cosmic injustice that was actually being perpetuated in real time, on the other side of the planet. That kids were getting bombed out of their homes and then having to roam a continent trying to find other countries that would take them in, hoping not to be eaten by wild animals or starve to death before they could. This was actually happening.

My biggest concern was how long I'd have to wait for my priority checked bag to get out of baggage claim before I could catch a taxi to the hotel and meet up with everyone in the bar.

In retrospect, maybe deciding to throw it all to the wind wasn't the smartest play I could have made. If I had been thinking about getting married, trying to have kids, and the likelihood of hitting age 40 and still not being able to afford to buy a house...well only if we all had a magic 8-ball for life. I could only see trying to save the world.

I started researching humanitarian non governmental organizations (NGO's, in expatriate parlance), and applying to those that seemed to be trying to help the world's most marginalized. I got exactly zero call backs. Everyone wanted someone with field experience, of which I had none. How people get into the industry is still a black hole to my mind.

But my consulting firm had a Corporate Social Responsibility arm that offered up consultants and managers to the NGO's at cost-rate (not pro-bono, but not for profit either). The consultants agreed to go on 50% salary typically for 4-6 month projects, in exchange they got to travel to and live in a typically 3rd-world country and deliver some cool short-term work for a particular NGO. Once I found out about that, I was all in. The first project that came along was basically an exact fit - the type of work (supply chain management / strategy) that I loved doing, in a country I had always wanted to live in (South Africa), working for a huge NGO that I had volunteered with previously.

That's how I ended up moving to Africa. I did a couple projects over the course of a year for the client, helping them craft and implement a new organizational structure / function, building out the model to replicate it across the globe. They liked my work enough to hire me and I moved back - this time to Kenya - as a full time employee. Between my years consulting and working as an employee, I would see the majority of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa - mainly the most destitute ones no one wanted to see.

It was not glamorous work or travel. We traveled on discounted rates and the airline only gave me 50% credit for my miles. Nobody up to the president of the organization was allowed to book any other kind of fare - although in time I'd come to find that creative individuals found ways around this. We stayed in the lowest cost accommodations that could still be considered reasonably safe. I showered in cold, brownish water many times over those years. I went hungry when I couldn't find reasonably trustworthy food. I stared at the ceiling in the dark when the power was out for a few days straight. We sweated it out in the heat when there was nowhere else but outdoor facilities to train field staff in. We got back problems from long drives on bad or no roads in cheap vehicles.

The work wasn't glamorous either. Bringing standardization to Supply Chain in a country's operations meant you were digging into procurement, and looking more closely and who was selecting suppliers for the organization and how much those suppliers were being paid for the goods and services they theoretically provided to our organization. That made the owner of the function something of a powerful individual in the organization. Many times they reported to the Finance director of the office, which was what we referred to not as a conflict of interest, but something that required "segregation of duties" - i.e. we would recommend a different person selects the suppliers from the one who signs the checks that paid them. Our role was to bring operational savings and efficiency through better processes and tools, tracking of Key Performance Indicators, and the like. But where we could really make a difference was by feeble attempts through our work to slow down - because putting a stop to it wasn't really possible - the endless graft and corruption that is a part of business in the 3rd world.

This made me and my teams wonderfully unpopular. I'll digress, but in some countries the proposed change resulted in very drastic measures - one person even was killed when their tea was poisoned.

But we kept pushing through where we could, building relationship and trying to help the organization get more of the donor's dollar to the beneficiary at the end of the chain. Country after country. I got sick a lot - new bugs I guess that I wasn't used to. Bad food or drink was usually the culprit. I also picked up coping mechanisms to deal with the endless need that was pressed up against me every day, that I couldn't possibly begin to fix. It was what it was.

Over time, I started to get pulled into other regions - a bit in Haiti and Central America, a fair amount in central Asia. People in Pakistan and Afghanistan would always assume I was a government contractor or military intelligence - instead I was there to help clean up the aftermath of the humanity that survived the wars. I somehow lived and worked in a lot of very dangerous places for many years on end, and came out of it all relatively unscathed. It was very lonely work and very tiring. You gave everything and it was never close to enough.

In the end, I found that the corruption went a whole lot further up in the organization than I ever could have guessed. I'm talking C-level at the top of the global org. Making massive financial decisions to employ a consulting firm to do work that our organization didn't need because we were already doing it in many cases. I saw them fly in first class to these third world countries (I had staff that traveled on the same plane as them), stay in the finest hotels in the countries, refuse to use our organization's vehicles and instead book cabs, and charge the organization for-profit consulting rates. I'd later come to find out that the global project they would run in each of our regions never even got bid out to other firms in accordance with our own policy for that kind of thing. I'd also come to find out it was the biggest single spend with a single supplier of any goods or services that ever had taken place in the organization's history. I might have found a way to deal with it, if it hadn't been for the fact that they would literally copy work we had already done and then present it back to us on their letterhead as if they had done it.

I would also come to find that in the end, nobody likes a whistleblower. I have so much respect for Edward Snowden in a palpable way that I imagine few can, because I think I might have an inkling of everything that he gave up to do what he did. Friends, colleagues, family, life as you know it. Nobody really cares about you, they care about what you did - that you ruffled the feathers of what was working OK enough - before you said the king has no clothes. People only remember what you did, not who you are.

I was presented, indirectly, with the choice to keep my mouth shut about it, or leave. I chose neither and got shown the door. At least I can still live with myself. I hope certain others can't. I can't say I could sleep at night, but I'm still here. Which I suppose is for the best.

That was my flame-out in the world of humanitarian work overseas. I tried to save all the starving babies, and I maybe did some good work while I was there. But in the end, I failed. I didn't find a way to stay and build the right relationships and play the long game to bring the better good. I got too angry. I was justified, but it was bad for my health, bad for my teams, bad for my marriage and those around me. It was probably for the best in the end.

Maybe I'll get to remake my life again someday, who knows. Probably not, but anything could happen. Maybe I could do meaningful work again somewhere, someday. I'm glad I got the chance to try once though. I'm very thankful for that.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:11 PM on June 8, 2016 [71 favorites]

Po Bronson's What Should I Do with My Life is a book of profiles of people who've made changes, some big, some small, as they've sought the right place for them. Example of big: Wall Street success moves to Alabama and takes over a catfish farm.
posted by Capri at 4:57 PM on June 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Chris Guillebeau writes "The Art of Non-Conformity" which has a whole bunch of interviews with people doing exactly this

posted by devbrain at 4:58 PM on June 8, 2016

From a personal standpoint: In the last three years I changed from being a really stuffy, serious adjunct professor and university admin with my eyes glued to the top of the ivory tower pretty rapidly. I had a house, a new car, boring weeknights and weekends on the couch watching TV, and all that. I still do the admin work, but I slowly realized that this wasn't who I was, dove into the local indie metal scene, ran around with various bands, got a few dozen tattoos, and I am slowly transitioning into a more well-suited bohemian life as I attempt to make it as a freelance illustrator. It's terrifying to have my foot in both worlds and yet I feel as though this who I am and who I have been repressing.
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:09 PM on June 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu qualifies (also known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta). Teacher and headmistress at a school for 20 years then...well, you know the rest.
posted by forthright at 6:41 PM on June 8, 2016

For me, Ferguson was like what allkindsoftime describes. As a journalist over the years when Occupy and Snowden came into the public consciousness, and when BP befouled the Gulf of Mexico, and when the Arab Spring took place, and when meetings began to be held about radioactivity in my hometown, I was inspired but afraid to evidence any approval for activism. Journalists aren't supposed to have opinions, especially not opinions that support tearing down the status quo—not these days, anyway. But then my father had his third stroke. My husband became seriously ill. And Mike Brown was shot. This all happened in the space of about a year, and the last one really hit me.

I was transfixed. I grew up near Ferguson, just a few miles from where it all happened. Anyone who read my posts here during that time will recall that I was incapable of pulling myself away from the screen, even when my husband was in the hospital. I'd just gotten everything in storage and put my father's house on the market, after a year of weekends spent clearing it out and fixing it up, and when people began to gather in Ferguson, I couldn't look away. From the first headline, I had so many conflicting emotions. I worried about our property, and then I woke up and realized how stupid it was to think about property when black lives ended for no reason every day. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't think about anything else, when I saw so much that demanded a real response. I needed to bear witness to what I saw in some way, even though I knew I could be branded as a radical as a result. The racism of my hometown was laid bare.

I was so stressed, I began shedding. And at some personal cost, for the last three months of my career as a journalist, I dedicated myself to ensuring that we told the story straight, in opinion pieces and in news pieces, because I couldn't live with myself if I did anything else. Police sources needed to have their statements vetted, and I felt an obligation, by dint of my privileged position as an editor, to make certain we got it right. I laid aside my vow never to argue with people online, because so much was wrong online. I read everything. Every day there were more lies, more tries at twisting the very basic details of what happened that August day and every day after. I did my best to check the facts, and I refused to publish things that were demonstrably untrue, even when colleagues literally shouted me down or questioned my motivations. I did my best to be objective while representing the public interest.

I offered to write about it for my publication, but my piece was rejected, so I took it to Quartz. It was a personal story for me. Writing it jeopardized opportunities in the field that I'd only just been offered at the time and made some question my objectivity. I think appearing on national TV as a journalist discussing it sealed my fate. My editor and publisher offered no words of encouragement for representing that perspective. And like so many journalists who dare to stick their heads up, I was ultimately laid off.

It truly was the best thing that could've happened to me. I'd been unhappy there for some time, because I'd grown up with the job and changed along with it, but the way of things in the workplace had only grown increasingly unsustainable and unfair, as has happened at many journalism outlets. I'd been doing the job of at least four people for years, and I'd been bullied even before I decided to stand up for my principles. When the recession had hit, so many of us had felt like we needed to stay on the ship we were on at the time, because journalism jobs were scarce. But I'd begun interviewing with multiple companies that summer. At the time I was laid off, I'd been tossing ideas back and forth with one company, so I interviewed, and within a week of being laid off I scored my current job, at a company co-founded by another MeFite. Every day I feel thankful to be working for an ethical, thoughtful company that's devoted to setting up systems to help journalists and nonprofits do their jobs. I've gotten to work with intelligent, creative people and industry-leading clients who've become friends.

I've lessened my activism—I'm somewhat ashamed to say that I couldn't maintain the righteous fire every day in the face of all the other challenges that came my way in the last year and a half. But it's still part of who I am now. I was irrevocably changed and radicalized by everything I experienced in those three months. I'm honest with myself and those around me in a way that I never felt like I could be before this all took place. Personally, I feel like I've evolved, and I know I'm far from the only one whose life was changed by those months. Of the people I began following in the movement on Twitter, I've seen many whose life circumstances and choices were dramatically altered.
posted by limeonaire at 7:56 PM on June 8, 2016 [17 favorites]

Tracks by Robyn Davidson. A woman gives up her upper middle class life in the suburbs to capture and train wild camels.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:29 PM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Buddha, by Karen Armstrong
posted by jcrcarter at 9:15 PM on June 8, 2016

The most common example of this kind of thing in everyday life is when people join cults. You should be able to find lots of writeups about people who eventually escape, or who die while in the cult (think Jonestown or Heaven's Gate).

And there are lots and lots of stories about Scientowhosis...
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:20 PM on June 8, 2016

Po Bronson's What Should I Do With My Life was/is full of those stories.
posted by discopolo at 12:10 AM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

In 2003, writers Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair moved with their two young daughters from Los Angeles to Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific. They figured they could write anywhere. Didn't work out. The story, in their own words. You may recognize Mark as the co-founder of boingboing.net
posted by Homer42 at 5:23 AM on June 9, 2016

From the Grauniad: A moment that changed me: quitting the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Maybe not all fit the bill, but you may find some more among those already posted; A moment that changed me
posted by Mister Bijou at 5:40 AM on June 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Phoebe Snetsinger: "When Phoebe Snetsinger was diagnosed with melanoma in 1981 and given less than a year to live, she knew how she wanted to spend it: seeking out birds. Snetsinger, honored in today's Google Doodle, exceeded expectations.
She lived 18 more years. She didn't die of cancer. And by the time Snetsinger, who would have been 85 today, died in 1999, she'd seen about 85 percent of all of the bird species in the world. She called her autobiography Birding on Borrowed Time."

posted by jenfullmoon at 6:40 AM on June 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

The Pursuit of Happyness (book and movie). Also, me, every five years or so.
posted by myselfasme at 9:14 AM on June 9, 2016

Better Off
The Dirty Life (and all of the others on the "we bought a farm" shelf)
posted by salvia at 11:44 AM on June 9, 2016

If you want more stories of people becoming activists, check out Warrior Mothers (a book written by someone I know, but which I'm very glad to own).
posted by salvia at 12:02 PM on June 9, 2016

Ann Richards, the silver-tongued governor of Texas in the 90s, fits the bill in terms of her alcoholism.
posted by frecklefaerie at 1:48 PM on June 10, 2016

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